Commentary Magazine

Pollock and After, edited by Francis Frascina

The New York School

Pollock and After: The Critical Debate.
by Francis Frascina.
Harper & Row. 280 pp. $19.50.

A variety of considerations has caused the defunct New York School to emerge once more as a matter of urgency in the critical discussion of contemporary art. The issues now at hand, however, are mirror images of those that attended the birth and frantic ascendancy of the movement known as Abstract Expressionism. No longer do they concern a once-provocative innovation but rather a tradition so widely admired and so firmly established that it appeared, until not so very long ago, permanently to have silenced all opposition. Indeed, for the space of almost a generation, from the early 40's to the early 60's, the names of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Hans Hofmann, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman swept all before them.

But this has changed now, and as the art market trudges onward, constant only to the principle of ceaseless change, various questions have been raised about the New York School and its significance, formal, historical, and even ideological. That the New York School was so emphatically American, for example, and that it represented the moment when the art of our nation first caught, and kept, the world's attention, has not escaped the notice of envious critics abroad, nor of critics of a variety of persuasions here at home.

Within the context of the battle that now gathers around some of the most hallowed names in modern American art, Francis Frascina has performed a service with Pollock and After: The Critical Debate, in which he has collected and ably introduced thirteen essays, written for the most part in the past ten years. These consider Abstract Expressionism from an assortment of critical positions, though most frequently from that of Marxism or something not far from it.

Marxists ask, in essence, whether it is possible for art to be other than political (and also whether art should be other than political). Included in Frascina's anthology is at least one answer in the negative, that given by Clement Greenberg in his famous 1939 essay, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” as well as in his “Towards a Newer Laocoon”; it is an answer that would be ratified in practice by the painters of the New York School.

The circumstances against which Greenberg was rebelling at the end of the 30's were dominated artistically by styles that had become popular during the Depression, when the government created the WPA to give work to artists. Most of its commissions were projects to paint interior murals in post offices, hospitals, and train stations, in which the common man was to be depicted in a resolutely figurative, if slightly idealized, form. Although some fine work was created in this style by Social Realists like Ben Shahn and William Gropper, and by Southerners of the Regionalist school like Thomas Hart Benton, the majority suffered from an overpowering drabness. This was one target of Greenberg's ire. At the same time, he and others were painfully aware by how much American art lagged behind contemporary painting in Europe, and in particular behind the exhilarating formal explorations of the Cubists, whose methodical purifications seemed on the way to redeeming pure form from the ensnarements of content. At the end of this process, it was thought, lay abstraction and pure formalism.

It was in part through writers like Greenberg and Alfred H. Barr, Jr. that the climate of American opinion was made receptive to abstraction. But the brilliant new form that painting would take in this country was largely determined by the immigration to the United States of a great many of the foremost European avant-garde artists of both Cubist and Surrealist persuasions.

Most prewar art had owed at least some debt to Cubism. Whether in the mechano-morphic humanoids of Fernand Leger, or the exuberant chromatic experiments embarked upon by the early American abstract artists Max Weber and Stanton Macdonald Wright, or the geometrics of Mondrian and the Russian avant-garde, almost always in evidence in Cubist painting was the idea of an orderly world as conceived through linear perspective. Surrealism, by contrast, was founded upon Freudian dream psychology, and stressed everything that was irrational and anti-rational in man. Although this often induced artists to cultivate, paradoxically, an exacting pseudo-realism of the kind most dramatically evident in Salvador Dali, the insistence upon unconscious forces bequeathed to the later New York School that method of impassioned “automatic” painting and drawing to be found in artists like André Masson and Matta and Max Ernst, all of whom had come to the United States by the early 40's.

The Abstract Expressionists, however, aside from their general commitment to severing the ties with Cubism and Surrealism alike, were too various and unruly a bunch to subscribe to any single set of artistic or spiritual terms. Even the classical division of the New York School into Gestural Painters (Pollock, de Kooning, Hofmann) and Color Field Painters (Rothko, Robert Motherwell, Clyfford Still, Barnett Newman) suggests well this quality of diversity. Although each was passionately involved with form, each cultivated a style entirely different from that of his colleagues.

It is true that the work of the Abstract Expressionists does indeed have something distinctly American about it, both in what it advocated and what it rejected. In general, the previous works of modernist artists tended toward the diminutive and the contained, whether in the jewel-like delineations of Klee and the Russian avant-garde or even in the more deliberately savage depictions of Picasso. They were imbued, furthermore, with an urbanity and civilized savoir-faire which Americans, as such, were thought to lack. How different from this suavity was the aggressive bigness of the New York School, with its sweeping strokes and ragged encrustations of paint. Here were a freedom and an expansiveness to match the continental vastness of America itself.

But precisely the freedom and diversity and centrifugal agitation in so much of the work of the New York School are what have been called into question by not a few contributors to Frascina's anthology. To all appearances one would have to look long and hard before finding in the frenetic spirals of Pollock and de Kooning, or in a twelve-foot-square patch of turquoise by Barnett Newman, the unmistakable evidence of a capitalist plot. Yet this has not deterred such intrepid writers as Serge Guilbaut, Eva Cockcroft, and Max Kozloff, the last-named of whom declares, with sinister implication, “I am convinced that this allure [of the New York School] stems from an equivocal yet profound glorifying of American civilization.”

In their belief that the New York School was inspired by and nourished upon the spirit of capitalism, Serge Guilbaut and Eva Cockcroft attack the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) as, respectively, an “imperialist machine” and a “minor war contractor.” Miss Cockcroft all but erases the boundaries between MOMA and the CIA for, just as the CIA could fund the Boston Symphony Orchestra on one of its European tours, so MOMA, a gaudy appendage to Standard Oil, assembled exhibitions to tour in Europe, South America, and Asia. Absent from her analysis is something which anyone at all sensitive to modernism should be able to see, irrespective of his feelings toward capitalism, namely, that Abstract Expressionism had a great deal going for it in the way of what is usually referred to as art. Moreover, it was perfectly justifiable for Americans, who had long delighted in what had been sent over by European artists, to feel pride in what they had to show in return. And was it the fault of these Americans that Europeans greeted their painters so enthusiastically, and that European artists then proceeded of their own free will to incorporate the idiom of the New York School into their paintings?

Any thorough treatment of the origins of the New York School must account for the various extra-artistic presuppositions that attended upon, and quite possibly influenced, its creation. But to assert, as do many of the contributors to this book, that art is merely a function of politics is clearly misdirected, deceptive, and naive.

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